Translation of the Bible has traditionally been a difficult, controversial, and sometimes dangerous matter.  For centuries, Church authorities suppressed any effort to translate the Bible at all, fearing that direct access of the masses to Divine Revelation would weaken the hold of the Church on the hearts and minds of the believers.

John Wycliffe was the first to translate the Bible into English, in the 1380’s, an action that so infuriated the Pope of the time that he had Wycliffe’s bones dug up from his grave 44 years after his death, broken up and scattered!  And William Tyndale, who produced the first translation into English using the original Hebrew and Greek texts (Wycliffe had translated only from the LatinVulgate) – his text was enormously influential in the composition of the King James version — was, in 1536, ordered by the English crown to be strangled while tied to the stake, and then his body was burnt.

But even in the most peaceful of cases, scholars may disagree about what a particular word or phrase meant when the text was committed to writing some 2500 years ago.  There are uncounted examples of differences in translation based on different understanding of the original Hebrew text.  Some of these differences have profound theological implications.

The 7th  of the Ten Commandments is a prime example of the problem of translation. The  original Hebrew text reads /לא תרצח/, which in plain Hebrew means “Do Not Murder”.  However, many of the English translations of the Ten Commandments, beginning with the King James Version itself, write “Do Not Kill.” The Revised Standard Version does the same, as does the Artscroll Edition also.  On the other hand, the Etz Hayyim translation has “murder”, as do the New Revised Standard Version,  the Harper Collins Study Bible and the new Jewish Publication  Society translation.

There is an important difference between killing and murder, of course.  Parties to all kinds of controversies, from capital punishment to pacifism to vegetarianism, have used this verse to support their causes.  But what did the original writers of the 7th of the Ten  Commandments really mean?  We will probably never know for sure.

A precise, exquisite  photographic reproduction of  the Ten Commandments scroll is available at  Licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Author:  Walter Zanger